VELBON MAXi 343E Lightweight Photographic Tripod
The VELBON MAXi 343E isn't the world's most stable tripod, but then again it makes no claims on that score. Its selling point is that it's a small, light, inexpensive and relatively stable travel tripod.
The basic specifications are:
My usual "travel" tripod is a Bogen 3001 with a 3262 ball head, but on a recent trip this was too large and heavy at a weight of 4.65lbs. The Velbon (with head) is only 1.9lbs, a saving of 2.75lbs in weight. The 3001 (with head removed) is 21" long when folded, while the VELBON MAXi 343E is only 15.5" (the ballhead adds 2"), so it's significantly shorter. The Velbon will fit inside my LowePro Trekker photo backpack, while the Bogen 3001 will not. Below you can see the two tripods compared.
The image below shows the two tripods extended:
The two tripods are very similar in extended height.
The next shot shows both tripods with their center columns fully extended.
As you can see, the Velbon MAXi 343E is actually a few inches taller.
Finally here's a shot of an EOS 20D with a 75-300IS lens extended to 300mm. The ballhead is small, but will hold this camera/lens combination quite securely.
So how stable is it?The simple answer is that when fully extended it can't compete with the Bogen 3001 for stability. This is no surprise since the legs are thinner and the center column is both thinner and longer.
However, even fully extended it does provide useful and usable additional stability over hand holding a lens, even a pretty long lens. I used a 75-300IS zoom on an EOS 20D to test stability. To get sharp images with this lens without IS being turned on, a shutter speed of around 1/500s is required. The "1/focal length" rule of thumb for handholdability gets modified by the sensor cropping factor of 1.6x, giving an estimated 1/480s required shutter speed.
When used on the VELBON MAXi 343E at full extension and with the center column at full height, I found I could get sharp images at around 1/100s with IS off and the lens zoomed out to 300mm. This increase in stability is comparable to what you'd get by turning IS on. However, if you DO turn IS on, then you can get sharp images down to about 1/25s. Normally you shouldn't use IS on this lens when it's on a tripod, but that assumes a rock stable tripod. Since the VELBON MAXi 343E isn't rock stable when fully extended, IS is still effective.
Image SamplesHere's the full image, reduced in size to fit the page.
Below is a 100% crop from the center of the image which was shot at 1/100s using the 75-300mm lens, set to 300mm with IS off. The camera was mounted on the VELBON MAXi 343E with the center column fully extended.
Next, here are two shots taken at 1/25s, the shot on the left is with IS turned on, the shot on the right is with IS turned off. It's clear that IS helps in this case!
Finally, below is a shot taken at 300mm, with IS off and at a shutter speed of 1/6s using mirror lockup.
As you can see, at 1/6s with MLU (in the absence of wind), even with the VELBON MAXi 343E and center column fully extended, the image is sharp.
ConclusionThe VELBON MAXi 343E makes and excellent travel tripod. It's more than adequate for most small consumer digicams but is also usable with a full size DSLR and lenses up to maybe 300mm. Obviously the less you extend the legs, the more stable it is, and extending the center column isn't something that's going to help stability either. However if you really NEED a tripod that comes up to eye level, the VELBON MAXi 343E is usable fully extended. When used with an IS lens, shutter speeds as low as 1/25s can be used at 300mm, without IS sharp images can be obtained at 1/100s. If the wind is low and MLU is used, there's really no lower limit on shutter speed and even at 1/6s sharp images can be obtained. At shorter focal lengths, longer shutter speeds are possible and without the center column extended, stability is further increased. The included ballhead is certainly sturdy enough to hold a digital SLR and a small to medium lens. At a price of around $70 (including ball head and carry bag), the VELBON MAXi 343E is an excellent and practical option for lightweight travel with digicams, camcorders and DSLRs with small lenses.
UPDATE - August 2008 - While I'm still pleased with my Velbon 343e, it seems to have been discontinued by Velbon and is hard or impossible to find new. If you're still interested in a small, lightweight tripod (and you probably should be!), check out the following products. The Velbon Ultra Luxi and Ultra Maxi SF tripods are quite similar to the 343e. The DF-40 is inexpensive, but is a little larger and heavier and it has a pan-tilt head rather than (what I think is) the more useful ball head.
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